First Voices Festival showcases Indigenous culture with an outdoor powwow, storytelling, and performances

Singer-songwriter Shelley Morningsong will perform with dancer Fabian Fontenelle at the First Voices Festival. (Courtesy of: Shelley Morningsong)

A traditional Native American powwow is coming to Atlanta to celebrate indigenous culture. The “First Voices Festival” takes place on Nov. 19 in Little Five Points and includes an outdoor powwow, a discussion on the art of activism, and a performance by singer-songwriter Shelley Morningsong and dancer Fabian Fontenelle. “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes was joined via Zoom by co-curator Carmen Halagahu, co-owner of Turtle Island Trading in Atlanta; Buffalo Yellowbird, festival curator and MC of the powwow; and singer-songwriter Shelley Morningsong.

Interview highlights:

The Native American powwow and why it’s kept alive today:

“The history of the powwow began over 200 years ago with the Omahas,” said Morningsong. “Powwow is different categories of dance. Some of them are very, very old. Some have evolved over time, so dancing, singing, and during the powwow, a lot of times, we have memorials. We have veterans remembrance and honor songs, and it’s a very spiritual experience, and it’s a very, very old ceremony.” Yellowbird added, “The powwow is a celebration of life because we use it in times of victory at battle, wedding ceremonies, just like anybody else in any other society, there are reasons to celebrate.”

“I’m the one that’s gonna be running my mouth, telling stories, introducing the dances. I will do a history and a lot of what we’re doing; the reason why we’re doing this, is because we want to bring our cultural identity to Atlanta. We want to let y’all know we are still here,” said Yellowbird. “A lot of people, they think that we’re just fairy tales at this point, and it’s really common that people think that, especially in the Southeast. So I’m gonna be telling stories, telling the stories of the dances, telling people along the lines of where we come from and why we do what we do.”

Shelley Morningsong on her remarkable story of self-discovery:

“In my younger days, I used to sing and write music for my church, and I was raising my children, and then when I was 40 years old, a really amazing thing happened to me. I met my father for the first time, and I didn’t even know all those years growing up that I was part Cheyenne,” Morningsong recounted. “He left before I was born, and I met him when I was 40 years old, and it really, it just really changed my life.”

She went on, “I went on to audition for ‘Music from a Painted Cave with Robert Mirabal from Taos Pueblo, and I got the part, and that was 22 years ago, and I met Fabian [Fontenelle]. That’s how I met Fabian. He was one of the principal dancers in ‘Music from a Painted Cave.’ Fabian and I, of course, we started to date and so forth, and we went on to do our own show, and we actually started out as street performers so many years ago…. and I started writing music, and Silver Wave Records approached me. So I presented a three-song demo to them, and then they signed me.”

On Turtle Island Trading, 7 Stages Theatre, and the Muscogee land they occupy:

“Much of what we do is educate people about the art that we’re selling. We carry the largest selection of Hopi-made silver jewelry, and I spend a lot of time explaining to people just how the artists make it,” said Halagahu. “We carry wampum, so we talk about wampum and the importance of that shell to the Northeastern people, and just on and on; we do a lot of education every day. There are a lot of people tribally enrolled around the United States who live in Atlanta, and they do come in and out of our store, and we do whatever we can to support the folks in offering to carry their products if they so wish.”

“7 Stages Theatre has had a longstanding position around recognizing that the theater is located on Muscogee land, as is our store, and they’ve had a longstanding policy of donating a portion of their ticket proceeds to Land Back-type initiatives, and so that also played a major role in us wanting to have a Muscogee person involved, so that they could be represented and speak for the Muscogee people, and their experience as Muscogee, so that no one else is trying to speak those words,” Halagahu explained.

The First Voices Festival takes place on Nov. 19 at various locations in Little Five Points, Atlanta. Tickets and more information are available at